Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Childhood Christmas

The other night Sean was asking me about Christmas when I was a kid. As I said at Easter time, Mama was Mrs. Holiday so we had fancy holidays in my childhood home. Daddy always teased her that she was partial to Christmas because her name was Mary, even though he rarely called her that.

In our house, Christmas started the day after Thanksgiving. My parents were teachers so they had Thanksgiving, the day after and the weekend off every year. Friday morning after breakfast Daddy would go out to the shed and start carting in the boxes. When they were all in he would dig out the lights that he hung across the front of the house. After testing them inside he would go out and climb up on his rickety old wooden stepladder balanced in the stones of our front yard and hang them. We always kept an ear out waiting for him to come crashing down since ladder-climbing + paralyzed foot = recipe for disaster but he never did, thankfully. He would also hang the wreath on the door. After he came inside he would switch the toilet seat in the front bathroom to the Christmas one. Then his work was pretty much over and he would come park himself on the sofa and supervise us while he tested the lights for the tree. My first job was to build the tree. We had a great tree. It was about 6 1/2 feet tall and it was really thick and bushy. After I got it built Mama would hang her pearl garland on it. Then Daddy would nestle the Good Luck Elf in the branches where he was safe from falling. After the Elf was settled Mama would start with the lights while I started sorting ornaments. We had all sorts of ornaments. I still have some of them that we used. There were felt birds that Mama had made back when they were first married, the standard store-bought ones of the era like the little drummer boys who look like their heads are ping-pong balls, beautiful bead bells that Gram made, ornaments that I had made in Sunday School, my Snoopy and Pooh Bear ornaments from Sears, ornaments that were gifts from people over the years, and later there were Hallmark ornaments. There were certain ornaments that I looked forward to every year like Mama's Holy Family ornament that still goes up on our tree. After we got them all up Daddy would bring in the afore-mentioned rickety wooden stepladder for Mama to put the angels on the top of the tree--they were short so a ladder was a necessity. He would spot her while she was on there, all the while cautioning her, "Be careful, Al. This thing isn't too sturdy." I always thought that was kind of funny since he had been on it in uneven rocks with no spotter but I knew better than to point that out. *grin* We had three angels on top of our tree. They were very small and they were tied on with pipe cleaners which were attached to their backs. The one at the very top was about the ugliest little thing you've ever seen. She had a cardboard head with some sort of weird curly blonde hair and she was holding a little cardboard violin. She was on the very first Christmas tree they had together in 1951 and she was on every tree they had after. There were two others who had made their appearance later but had existed my whole lifetime. They were also fairly ugly but not quite as bad as she was. They had plastic heads and one had a harp and one had a trumpet. All three of them had white gauzy-type robes with wire to keep their shape and they had gauzy wings as well.

This is me with our Christmas tree. I was maybe 16 or so.

After the tree was finished Mama would start putting out the rest of her Christmas decorations. She had so much stuff. One of my favorites was a Santa Claus music box. You wound up his base and, if I recall correctly, it played Jingle Bells. She also had a beautiful ceramic angel dressed in a lovely golden robe that she put on the shelf in the corner. (Daddy's beer steins were relegated to the storage boxes for the duration.) Then there was the Santa climbing into a chimney that held candy canes. One year she made a macrame Christmas tree with red wooden beads decorating it that she hung in the living room. There were little things with jingle bells on them that she hung around all the doorknobs. Drove Daddy crazy with the jingling but he was a good sport about them. She also had a plastic light-up Santa that she always stood underneath the tree. He was about 18 inches tall. Kind of like a miniature of the ones people put in their front yards now. The tablecloth on the table was changed out for one with holly all over it and she had decorations that she attached to all the plant hangers throughout the house.

While she was decorating the house I set up the nativity. It was really cool, at least to me as a kid. She had bought it for $3 at a flood sale one year at Ward's. The stable was a really thick cardboard and the front folded down to make a corral area. There was straw glued to the roof and she had a bag of straw that I would scatter on the floor of the stable. The figurines were ceramic and one year the black wise man (can't remember his name) had gotten broken. She replaced him but he wasn't quite in scale. Daddy nicknamed him Wilt since he was so much taller than the others. There was an opening in the back at the top with a light so it looked like starlight shining down on them. The only fault with it that I could ever find was that there was no way for the angel to be in the air and so I always had to stand her behind the Holy Family. Oddly enough the figurines that John got me when we were first married are the same design as hers were except they're made of resin and my Mary wears pink and hers wore blue. Pretty cool, huh?

Decorating was all finished on Friday. Baking was done on Saturday. After the kitchen was cleaned up from breakfast she and I started in on the cookies. Nothing out of the ordinary there. She just made standard cookies but dang, they were good. She always made Tollhouse for Daddy since they were his favorite and oatmeal raisin for me. Those weren't unique to Christmas though. She would make those periodically throughout the year as well. We had Christmas cookie cutters though and she made cookies that we cut out and decorated. There were trees, Santas, bells, angels and stars. It was my job to do the sifting when she was mixing them up. After she would roll the dough out it was my job to cut them out. I remember I always tried to use every inch of the dough from each rolling by fitting the different shapes together like a puzzle. Weird, I know, but it was fun. After they cooled we would frost them and put sprinkles on them to fancy them up. My personal favorites though were her raisin-filled cookies. They only appeared at Christmastime. She used the same dough as for the ones we decorated but they were cut into circles. Then she would put this delicious raisin-filling on them and fold them over. They were DELICIOUS. I can taste them just thinking about them.

Throughout the Christmas season we would have people in our house a lot because my mother was in a bridge club and her hosting night was always the first Thursday in December. She was also in a teacher's sorority and a university women's group and they both had progressive Christmas dinners during December and our house was always one of the stops on the route. I was allowed to answer the door to let the ladies in and then I was banished. I always sat in the dark at the end of the hall by my room where they couldn't see me and listened though. Daddy retired to the back room and never appeared until they left. He hated having those get-togethers at our house because of the smoke. He never did smoke and Mama had long since quit by then (officially) so he wasn't too wild about it. After they left he would open all the windows and complain for at least two days that the place stunk to high heaven.

As far as Christmas itself went, there were always lots of presents under our tree. Most of them were nothing major but Mama was from a large family so she liked to see lots of gifts under the tree. We would do funny things to make it seem like there were more gifts than there were. For example, one year she got Daddy a pair of dress shoes and a pair of sneakers. She wrapped each shoe separately in different wrapping paper so it was like four gifts under there. Stuff like that. It was also a tradition that I got one gift on Christmas Eve. I usually spent Christmas Eve in my parents' bed since I was generally sick as a dog that day. My gift was almost always a brand new flannel nightgown that my mother had made for me. I loved them. They were floor-length with long sleeves (think Little House on the Prairie) and I could wrap myself in them completely and be so comfy. The year I was 8 I got a really special Christmas Eve gift though. I was especially sick that year and old enough that I felt bad to be sick on a holiday so they gave me something really special and it made me feel a lot better. It was a beautiful Madame Alexander baby doll that I had fallen in love with at Steinfeld's. I was never much one for dolls but she was just so beautiful and I would stand there and stare and stare at her in the store. She was on a high shelf and I knew better than to reach up and touch her but she was just gorgeous. On Christmas Eve she appeared on the bed. I named her Charlotte Anne. She actually already had a name but I didn't know that and I would have never called her "Pussy Cat" anyway as that is a silly name. I was so surprised and so happy. I also got a new nightgown as well and Charlotte Anne and I curled up together in their bed and slept really well.

This is not actually my doll. Mine had a blue gingham dress and blue ribbons in her hair. She wore the same booties though. When I turned her over she said, "Mama." I loved her to pieces.
On Christmas morning we had stockings on Mama and Daddy's bed first thing. Then we had breakfast. That was always the same. Mama had a giant electric skillet that she would use and she would make us scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, hashed browns and toast. After the kitchen was cleaned up we went to the living room for presents. I dressed up as Santa and handed out the presents. After they were all handed out we would open them one by one. Sometimes we would go round-robin and sometimes we would have one person open all theirs and then the next person. Just depended on the mood we were in. However we did it, there was no wrapping paper clean-up to be done afterward as Daddy came armed with a garbage bag and as each present was opened the wrapping was handed to him to be disposed of. Bows were attached to him so he wound up looking like a giant present by the time we were done. Unfortunately we never got a picture of that.  I'm not sure what Christmas dinner was. It might have been turkey or it might have been ham. I honestly can't remember. For some reason it just doesn't stand out in my mind. While we were cleaning up after the meal Daddy would go out to the shed and bring in the boxes. When we finished in the kitchen he'd say, "Okay, gorillas, time to get to work" and we'd reverse the process from the day after Thanksgiving. By nightfall our house was 100% back to normal. That is a tradition that we have continued in our house.

If anyone actually made it this far, I hope you enjoyed reading about Christmas in the corner of the world where I grew up. I hope you have wonderful Christmas memories from your corner as well.

Merry Christmas to everybody!!


Karen said...

Oh, I thought I commented last night! Either I am losing my mind (a distinct possibility) or it didn't go through. I enjoyed reading your memories, Wilma. Your parents sure knew how to make life special! Love the story of the doll, there is something about parents being able to provide a cherished dream that warms my heart. I like imagining the pleasure they must have had in providing you with that simple dream. It is the day after Christmas, one of my favorite days of the year...gonna read, eat and relax! Might do some laundry, too. Merry Christmas!

Wilma said...

Thank you, Karen! I don't think you're losing your mind. LOL My parents sure did know how to make things special. Thing is, at the time I thought it was just normal. It's only looking back on it that I realize it. Glad you had a lovely Christmas. Enjoy your days off.